I think if I was to stop and think about the power that I have sometimes, I wouldn't be able to handle it. I haven't been writing lately as the patients haven't been that interesting; the stories maybe not so dramatic. Life for me in the MICU is simple: patients come in, patients go out, new patients come in.
Based on what I've heard, it seems that we're not as busy as some of my colleagues have been. At most, I've carried about 3 patients. Most of them have been DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis), septic infection, or a mixture of problems. I've discharged patients straight from the unit to home, and we've had one patient with a series of misadventures who died within 8 hours of being transferred from another hospital. Tomorrow I'll see if I can find out how the Guillain Barre patient is doing.
On an earlier post, I wrote about talking to families about making the decision to withdraw care and "let nature take its course." It's a powerful position to be in. In essence, we make a clinical decision that a patient's outlook is grim or continued treatment is futile - we feel that it would be in the best interest of the patient to stop medical treatment. Primum non nocere - first do no harm.
In medical school, the first time I thought about my actions leading directly to a death was in the "Dog Lab" during physiology. My medical school still had a live dog lab where we studied the cardiovascular system en vivo by giving various cardiac medications to sedated and intubated dogs. I was the one giving the medications. After a time, you stopped thinking about the dog and focused on the beating heart lying in front of you; watching the various effects the drugs had.
One of the last things we did was give a medication that would cause ventricular fibrillation "a bag of worms." We all reached into the chest and felt the irregular heart beat. We then shocked the heart and watched it slowly return to a normal rhythm. The final medication I gave was potassium chloride. This would stop the heart... for good.
I didn't think about it as I reached for the syringe and started giving the medication. We all just peered into the chestto watch the heart give several strong contractions and then suddenly stop. We were all thinking about the physiology: cardiac monocytes being flooded with potassium leading to a contraction with no release. Then I took a step back to cap my needle and realized I had just killed a dog. (We say "sacrificed" in research.)
On days like today I feel the same as I did on that day. I talk to the family who look to me to do "what I need to do for my patient." I talk to them and guide them to the decision to withdraw care. And then I write the orders: morphine bolus, morphine drip "titrate to agonal breathing," d/c (discontinue) all medications (including the ones currently keeping the heart going), d/c lab draws, d/c ventilator support. These are the "comfort measures" orders, but as I write them, I feel like I am back in medical school, pushing the syringe.
Tomorrow is Grand Rounds Wednesday, and I will be helping the medical students learn how to intubate in the evening. We'll see what the morning brings.